Many black and Latino gangs operated in the housing projects near Father Gregory Boyle's church when he started working in East Los Angeles 30 years ago. He was warned not to walk through the neighborhood.
"I remember early on a police car pulled over next to me because I was this white guy walking in the projects, which meant I was probably there looking for crack," Boyle says.
When the officers asked what he was doing, Boyle pointed to the church and said he was the new priest.
"I said, 'I'm walking in my parish,' and one of the cops said, 'We don't recommend it.'" he says.
Boyle, a Jesuit priest and author, led the development of an alternative school, Homeboy Bakery, and eventually the nonprofit Homeboy Industries in East LA. The work-study model is considered the pre-eminent approach to gang-member rehabilitation, spawning over 140 similar programs in the US.
Boyle was supposed to appear in Rochester on December 1, but cancelled. He's expected to reschedule the lecture for after the first of the year.
Boyle has devoted much of his adult life to working with gang members in some of Los Angeles's poorest neighborhoods. He understands the challenges that educators, students, and families in urban communities face throughout America where the temptation is to marginalize poor children and their families.
The birth of alternative schools such as Boyle's is the result of zero tolerance policies toward children who misbehave, he says.
"The first step is to 'otherize' and criminalize and demonize and that's always a failure because it's a fundamental untruth," Boyle says. "These kids are carrying more than what other kids have to carry, so maybe we should stand in awe of them."
Students would typically get kicked out of their traditional public school for fighting, for example, and have no place to go.
"They would be standing outside wreaking havoc and selling drugs and I would walk out to them and say, 'Hey, if I found a school that would take you, would you go?' Every one of them would say yes, but then I couldn't find one that would accept them," Boyle says. "That's when we knew we had to start a school."
The students attend school part time and work part time at one of Homeboy's venues such as a bakery, Homeboy apparel, and Homeboy grocery and food products. The work-study approach, though initially promising, proved insufficient, though, and it took years for Boyle to realize that something else was needed.
After years of being demonized, most of the young people need to be brought into a caring, therapeutic community to mentally recover, Boyle says.
"There's isn't a single gang member who walks through our doors that doesn't have a storehouse of terror, torture, violence, abandonment, and abuse of every description," he says. "These are folks who need healing to have hope restored, to have the damage done healed. Damaged kids will be damaged people unless we tend to them."